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The Turquoise Mosaics

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (series)

    • The Turquoise Mosaics
  • Description

    Pectoral, in the form of a double-headed serpent. Made of cedro wood (Cedrela odorata) and covered with mosaic made of turquoise and red thorny oyster shell (Spondylus princeps). The teeth in the two open mouths are made from conch shell (Strombus). Two resins are used as adhesive: pine resin and Bursera resin (copal). In the mouths the resin is coloured red with hematite. Beeswax adhesive survives around the eye sockets.


  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 1400-1521
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 20.3 centimetres
    • Width: 43.3 centimetres
    • Depth: 5.9 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    Vila Llonch, in McEwan 2009, Cat. 104, p239

    "The Nahuatl term 'coatl' can be translated as both serpent and twin. The Mexica considered serpents to be pwoerful, multifaceted creatures that could bridge the spheres (the underworld, water and sky) owing to their physical and mythical characterisitics.

    Serpents were also associated with fertility and with water, owing to the undulating movement of their bodies. In Mexica iconography turquoise serpents (xiuhcoatl) are related to celestial events. On the Mexica Calendar Stone, two xiucoatl accompany the sun on its daily journey across the sky.

    Double-headed serpents (maquizcoatl) were considered to be the bearers of bad omens and were associated with elite figures. The Mexica believed that anyone finding one in their path should place it on their arm. If the serpent could not be moved it meant that death was approaching. Maquizcoatl was one of the names given to the supreme Mexica god Huitzilopochtli. It is therefore no coincidence that four double-headed serpents, worn as bracelets and anklets in the monumental sculpture of his vanquished sister Coyolxauhqui, excavated at the Templo Mayor.

    This double-headed serpent is carved from a single piece of Spanish cedarwood (Cedrela odorata). The front of the serpent and the two heads are covered with turquoise mosaic, and the hollowed-out reverse of the body was originally gilded. The open jaws have menacing fangs made of Strombus shells, with gums and nostrils depicted using fragments of the red thorny oyster (Spondylus princeps).

    Both snouts are decorated with representations of feathers and a double band of turquoise and shell discs on a black background. The decoration is similar to that which appears on numerous sacrificial vessels or cuauhxicalli, perhaps linking the morbid connotations of this magical animal to the destinity of its victims. The heads may originally have featured inlaid eyes made from pyrite or obsidian, and flickering tongues might have been attached to the holes in the centre of the lower jaws to create the impression of a living creature.

    The two holes at the top indicate that this double-headed serpent may have been worn on the chest as a pectoral. Similar large zoomorphic effigies worn in this way are illustrated in fol. 72 of the Codex Magliabechiano depicting the earth goddess Cihuacoatl, and in fols. 9, 10 and 34 of the Codex Borbonicus. This maquizcoatl might therefore have been an insignia worn or held by an effigy of Huitzilopochtli or one of his impersonators."<b>McEwan 2009, p. 16

    Double-headed serpent. Turquoise mosaic on wood. Mixtec-Aztec, AD 1400-1521 </b>

    This iconic image of a double-headed serpent may represent a 'sky-band', symbolizing the celestial realm. It was an emblem of authority, perhaps once part of an elaborate suite of ritual regalia worn or carried on ceremonial occasions. It is carved in cedar wood (<i> Cedrela odorata</i>), which served as a base upon which a skillfully worked pattern of tiny cut and polished turquoise mosaic <i>tesserae</i> was applied using pine resin adhesive. Turquoise was highly valued in Mesoamerica and was obtained by Aztec trading emissaries (<i>pochteca</i>) from mines in what is now the southwest United States, far beyond the limits of the Aztec empire. The worked tiles were carefully selected and graded by size and colour then laid in to recreate the subtle patterning of the snake's scales. Details around the nose and mouth of both serpent heads are picked out in red thorny oyster shell (<i> Spondylus princeps</i>), conch shell (<i>strombus galeatus</i> was used for the white teeth, and polished orbs of iron pyrite may once have been placed in the eye sockets. The intense blue-green hues of turquoise evoke associations with Quetzalcoatl ('feahtered serpent'), one of the most powerful Aztec deities and culture heroes. Serpentine imagery is also associated with other Mesoamerican deities, particularly Xiuhcoatl and Tlaloc.


  • Bibliography

    • Matos Moctezuma 2002 294 bibliographic details
    • MacGregor 2010 78 bibliographic details
    • McEwan 2009a Cat. 104 bibliographic details
    • McEwan, Middleton, Cartwright & Stacey fig. 79, p.55 (full frontal image) bibliographic details
    • McEwan 1994 p. 80 bibliographic details
    • Attenborough 1976 p.51 bibliographic details
    • McEwan 2009 pp. 16-17 bibliographic details
    • King et al 2012 pp.7-14, 55-64, 183-196 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G27/dc6

  • Exhibition history

    1987-1994, London, Museum of Mankind (Room 1), 'Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico'
    2002, London, Royal Academy, Aztecs
    2003, Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Aztecs
    2009-2010 24 Sep-24 Jan, London, BM, Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler
    2010-2011, London, BM/BBC, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'

  • Subjects

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    For further acquisition details, see King et al. 2012. pp.188-194 The serpent was registered by the Museum as “Purchased. Christy Fund. September 1894. Duchessa Massimo through Lord Walsingham £100” (BM, AOA) It was first offered to the BM on 3 September 1892, for £350, by a dealer, a Mr Ed. Joseph of 158 New Bond Street, who wrote that he was acting on behalf of a “Gentleman in Italy”. The purchase was declined on account of the high price (BM, P&E). Subsequent negotiations in 1894 regarding the purchase took place between Thomas de Grey, 6th Baron Walsingham (1843-1919), politician and entomologist, who was a BM Trustee; Duchess Massimo (1840-1923), who said that she was acting only as intermediary, and the BM curators A W Franks (1826-97) q.v. and his assistant Hercules Read (1857-1929) q.v. Some correspondence is preserved in the Dept of Prehistory & Europe. The initial price of £120 was lowered and in September the turquoise was acquired for the BM in return for an open cheque sent to the Duchess via Lord Walsingham. It was exhibited to the Society of Antiquaries on 22 November 1894. Because of the confidentiality of the negotiations Franks seems to have remained unsure about the identity of the vendor. The Duchess, née Doria-Pamphilj-Landi, was married to Emilio Massimo, 3rd Duca di Rignano (1835-1907) but separated from her husband at an early stage (See Memoirs of her friend Lady (Walburga) Paget (née von Hohenthal) (d. 1929), wife of the British Ambassador Sir Augustus Berkeley Paget (1823-96), and A J C Hare (1834-1903) (Hare, 1896: 465). Lady Paget wrote with reference to the Duchess’s brothers, Prince Giovanni (1843-90) and Alfonso (1851-1914): A shocking thing has happened, poor Gianetto (Doria) died under the knife on Monday morning. All the Dorias are distracted. I am told Alfonso has been left very little, everything goes to his son, because he is such a spendthrift. For poor Duchess Massimo, who is completely ruined, it is a fearful blow, as he helped her much (Paget, 1928: 489-90). In the copy of Hercules Read’s paper (1895) in the BM’s Department of Prehistory & Europe the two references to the serpent, which mention its source as “an old collection in Rome”, (389, 397) have been annotated in manuscript “Prince Massimo”. The annotation may be by Read, but whether he had obtained confirmation of the provenance or was still guessing is not now known. It has usually been assumed that the serpent could have come from the Massimo family but, given the failure of the Duchess’s marriage, one might now speculate that the source could have been the Dorias. Or perhaps it was a family whose name is not recorded. See M Caygill, ‘Henry Christy, A W Franks and the British Museum’s turquoise mosaics’ in King et al (eds) Turquoise in Mexico and North America: Science, Conservation, Culture and Collections (2012) Read, H. (1895). “On an ancient Mexican Head-piece, coated with Mosaic,” Archaeologia LIV, II: 383-98.

  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number


  • Additional IDs

    • Am1894C3.634 (old CDMS no.)


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Object reference number: ESA6789

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